By now the story of Omar Ismail Mostefai, the first of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks to be named, is depressingly familiar. One could almost have written his biography before knowing anything about him. A petty criminal of Algerian parentage from what all the world now calls the banlieue, he was sustained largely by the social security system, an erstwhile fan of rap music, and a votary of what might be called the continuation of criminality by other means, which is to say Islamism and the grandiose purpose in life that it gives to its adherents.
There are surely good arguments for the NSA metadata collection program. The bare assertion—evident on the Sunday shows last weekend—that it would have prevented 9/11 is not one of them.
It is, for starters, highly speculative. The pre-9/11 problem was not a lack of data but a lack of coordination. One need not engage in retrospective blame to observe that clues generated by the old technology—larger needles in a smaller haystack—seem, in searing hindsight, not to have been lacking.
The deeper problem is retrospective risk analysis. Its concomitant is the attempt to use 9/11 as a rhetorical trump. It is intended to stop conversation rather than start it, as in Rep. Peter King’s understandable display of pathos on Meet the Press: “I live in New York. I lost about 150 friends, neighbors and constituents on September 11. If the NSA had had this metadata in 2001, that attack probably wouldn’t have happened.”
The Congressman’s personal loss deserves both sympathy and honor. But the distance of a dozen years provides adequate space for deliberate rather than impassioned consideration, and the simple assertion—which is hindsight working in hindsight—that surveillance would have prevented the attacks cannot conclude the issue in foresight for the simple reason that, looking forward, preventing attacks can never be all that matters.
There is no dictum more central to Burkean prudence than the idea that one does not establish rules for the ordinary case based on the extreme one. So why is Rand Paul, of all people, on television speculating on what the Boston marathon case might mean for a policy on the domestic use of drones?
His answer, apparently leaning more toward his presidential ambitions than his 13-hour filibuster on the topic, was that he would not have objected to the use of a drone against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev during the manhunt for the alleged Boston marathon bomber. This is being interpreted as abandoning Paul’s general objection to the use of drones against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.